Puis nous sommes allés au Sud de la France [google translate, do me right…]

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The only things I knew about the South of France before I arrived I figure I must have picked up from questionable romantic comedies. Or Inglourious Basterds, I feel like there was some provincial Provence somewhere in that film. Maybe? [RIP Shosanna Dreyfus.] As was the theme thus far in France, I was unclear on what I was supposed to want to do in the South of France, but I know I certainly enjoyed saying, out loud, that I was summering in the South of France. What else did I really need to know?

I had heard a lot of things about Provence. Mostly to do with food, lavender, wine, and sunflowers. I think I also had some illusions about dreamy, mysterious, older gentlemen who might wander out of quaint cafés or mysterious corners bearing flowers or wine or something, while romantic music emanates from some equally mysterious location.

Some of these preconceived notions were spot on.

We left Paris by train headed to Nimês, where we would rent a car to drive to Uzès, a small town near Avignon where Frenchie’s dad lives when he is in France. It was hot, and stunningly beautiful as we moved through the countryside to our first destination. There is something viscerally exciting when, before your eyes, preconceived notions become realities. It is a strangely satisfying combination of surprise, validation and joy.

Arriving in Nimês, we found the car agency and took a bit of time to work out exactly what was going on. Initially I had not been entirely on board with a couple of the decisions – like renting a car – did we really need one? [Yes.] Or did we want to see a concert at the Arena de Nimês even if it was not going to be Lionel Richie? [Hello, yes, although initially no-yes-no-yes.] In keeping with the trend, Frenchie knew best and I was finally learning to keep my mouth shut about it. We would get a car, drop our stuff in it, and head out to see the village of Nimês for crème glacés, tickets, shopping, walking.

And so we did.

Nimês was lovely, and hot. I remember being really impressed initially, but looking back on it after seeing Uzès, it was a little less special, perspective being what it is. It was a lovely intro, at the very least, and the Arena… well, we will get to that.

On returning to the car we were grateful for the shade of the subterranean garage. So grateful apparently that the powers that be allowed us to be there for far longer than we anticipated. In our (occasional) fiscal and (regular) regional pragmatism we opted to have only one driver on the car: Frenchie. And I was excited to see how this would go. But it appeared that we were not going. To be fair, I have not had a car since I sold mine – or rather #4 did, for far less than he should have – when I moved to Asia, and cars have become far more… automated. It is amusing to me how in simplifying things, car makers have made the vehicles so much more mysterious. Add to this that Frenchie is a committed luddite and an indefatigable anachronist, and we were nearly in a Mr. Bean sketch. There was an informative (though French) LED display that kept saying to engage the clutch. I am not sure how I suddenly understood French when I could barely recall how to say you’re welcome after several weeks dans le pays, but suddenly I could. So I kept saying “Put the clutch in.” And Frenchie kept saying, “What is this clutch?” And I would tell her and she would look at me like I was crazy. This went on for quite some time. At one point we were even considering going back upstairs to tell them we had a defective car.

And the shade of the garage was no longer keeping these four ladies cool.

I asked could I just try once, so we switched seats.

And the car started.

I believe we are now  all clear on how to say, and effectively demonstrate, clutch multilingually.

More to the point we now had air con and were en route to what lay ahead: Uzès.

The drive was beautiful and the approach to the village stunning. But we were completely unprepared for what was really in store. I now understand so much more clearly Frenchie’s love for all that is old and gone – I have always been curious, almost perplexed, by her love for the past. She has described it as a love for the lost innocence of people and places. I have felt more that it was a strange resistance to see the world – for better or for worse – as it is. In some cases I even felt like, and tried unsuccessfully to communicate, that her love for days gone by in places is at best limiting to these places as she insists they not progress in any way for the benefit of maintaining an image of something she wants to hold, rather than a reality she should be able to see. At worst it feels repressive and imperialistic. I know that this is not at all how she feels it or means it and that she would tell me I am up to my tricks of over thinking. This may be true. Either way she is my own Adriana, the one who will always long for some illusive Golden Age.

But walking through the gate (yes, gate) on the narrow, cobbled streets, we were transported.

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I knew I was going to enjoy my time here, in a quaint experiential way. But when I turned to look at Nic I saw something different: she was home. I had never seen someone look so perfectly in situ. She belongs in the South of France… if not now, or forever, definitely right then, Nickie was home.

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After dropping off our things and appreciating the wonderfully familiar home of a person who you’ve never met but in knowing his familiars you know him anyhow, we went out. We wandered around a few of the streets to the place du village. We chose a small taverna and sat down for appetizers and rosé. And there we were: a group of people, sometimes friends, sometimes foes, sometimes family, sometimes allies, sometimes travelers, always simpatico: especially in the moments when we were not so sure.

Over wine and bread and wine and olives and wine we considered if people always have choices or sometimes they don’t. We talked about men in Australia and America and Hong Kong. We talked about the recurring narrative that we could not really believe that we were here in this place, at this time.

There were perfect dark corners and music emanating from them… no mystery men… but it was early.

For the next few days we explored various aspects of this part of Provence. We got a wonderful tip on a restaurant from two women who had been sitting next to us at the taverna, La Table 2 Julien, for which we booked a table later in the week, there were villages of ceramics, open air markets, an arts festival in Avignon, the aqueduct, the Tower of Uzès… the list had the potential to go on and on. And not to be forgotten was the lovely home we had at our disposal.

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I think the myriad options gave rise to the more obvious differences in our various objectives. It would be the first time – to my knowledge (save for the regular disparagement for being American) – that these differences began to be a little prickly and sting as it were. (As I have said before, group work can be a struggle in the best of times.) The result of this was a bit more alone time, or tandem time, which was good for all of us, and required that we make our needs clear, which is another good practice.

I was not giving up the Pont du Gard, nor the ancient garden and tower of Uzès. And food, I wanted all the food, though truth be told I didn’t really want to figure it out in terms of restaurants and meals, I just wanted to eat it. As for road tripping and shopping, I felt like there was enough in our vicinity, but was reminded that I didn’t really know what was in our vicinity, which was an undeniable truth. Still, I was not really excited for hours in the car to spend moments in towns I was not sure I could actually see. But for the potential of greatness (positive spin on F.O.M.O.) we went.

Our day to Avignon was important because my young real estate magnate (aka Frenchie) is looking there for her next purchase, but also because of the Festival d’Avignon, self-proclaimed as “one of the most important contemporary performing arts events in the world.” I think it was impressive, I mean I know it was, it was just all in French. So we eventually went to a dance production. I was far more interested in the history of Avignon, it was the home to the Popes for years and there was a big old Palais des Papes, which I wanted to climb.

I did not get to climb this palace. We did however witness a mad conflict between a bunch of French officials who were trying to oversee a memorial for Jewish soldiers who had died in WWII at the same time that a visiting troupe of Korean drummers and dancers was kicking off in the plaza directly adjacent to and below the memorial. There was a lot of unscripted whistle blowing. It reminded me quite a bit of this for some reason.

Avignon is a walled city along the Rhône River with an interesting and complicated history. While it maintains much of this feel, during the festival it is like one giant billboard.

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Following the show we had a walk and lunch and then I took the liberty to scramble across town in search of a particular show poster that I had been unable to pull from the walls (there were so many posters but the one I wanted of course cost €5.) But this run gave me the chance to see the ramparts and the walls – as you know I do love a walled city.

The city was gorgeous and another one of those places that really takes you back, with winding streets and narrow buildings with the colored window shutters on muted terra-cotta colored buildings. I tried to picture myself living there as we considered different areas where Frenchie might find herself. Every time, as with Uzès, I thought it was lovely and sweet, and positively unlivable. I am just not cut out for the provincial, I guess.

Leaving Avignon we were en route to L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue. This town rates incredibly low on my Fabulous French Review. I would like to say this is because with limited time the parts we saw were totally uncharming… so strange for the part of the world that seems to have a lock on charm… and it was unbearably hot. And we were going the opposite way from Uzès so I was confused. The saving grace was that after a quick stop we drove on to Gordes, a place I would have loved to check out further but it was not to be.

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Someday I will go back to Gordes with one of those mythical mystery men – out the shadows or not.

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Our remaining time in and around Uzès accommodated almost all of our needs in different ways. We went to the Pont du Gard, and it was as fantastic as I could have imagined as we were able to walk through the actual aqueduct. Well, some of us were… somehow one of our tickets had been misplaced and in a strangely non-provincial way, the woman who had sold the ticket suddenly claimed she had no recollection of such and event and she would not let Frenchie through. Nic and I were unaware of this until we had gone through the entire aqueduct and sat wondering how we had lost our friend in a one way tunnel. I was a disappointment, though I am not sure if Frenchie was more disappointed in not going through the aqueduct or in the behavior she declared decidedly UN-French from the guide. The day itself was so stunning, it made up (almost) for this mishap.

The Pont du Gard is: an ancient Roman aqueduct that crosses the Gardon River in the south of France. Located near the town of Vers-Pont-du-Gard, the bridge is part of the Nîmes aqueduct, a 50-kilometer system built in the first century AD to carry water from a spring at Uzès to the Roman colony of Nemausus (Nîmes) Because of the uneven terrain between the two points, the mostly underground aqueduct followed a long, winding route that called for a bridge across the gorge of the Gardon River. The Pont du Gard is the highest of all elevated Roman aqueducts, and, along with the Aqueduct of Segovia, one of the best preserved. It was added to UNESCO‘s list of World Heritage Sites in 1985 because of its historical importance. (wiki FTW)

And basically I just wanted to walk around saying: What have the Romans ever done for us? [“The aqueduct?”]

It was one of the coolest things I have seen. Along with the mural of world heritage sites that listed French gastronomy as one of them. Oh France.

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In our last full day I was able to explore the medieval garden of Uzès which is between the ancient King’s Tower and Bishop’s Tower – formerly used as a prison among other things. This tower I got to climb.

After spending a little bit of time by myself in the medieval garden and exploring the King’s prison and the Bishop’s tower I headed back to our flat. For our last night all together in the south of France we would be driving to Nimes to see Sting perform at the ancient Arenes de Nimes. The drive was easy and the parking was fortuitous. If only choosing an outfit would have been so easy.

We stopped for a light dinner beforehand, although by this time I had waited too long and was crabby from hunger and nitpicking. This is the thing about being in a group: sometimes little things go unnoticed and sometimes they don’t and sometimes they just build up. It is usually in these situations I find that the inconsequential breaks the levee and emotions are misdirected and further misinterpreted. For public consumption, I’ll just say, the one person who I snapped at was not the one I meant to… And I needed a time out.

Or champagne. Champagne is generally a good alternative.

There is no mood that the Arenes de Nimês could not conquer, which for the setting seems completely appropriate.

Built in the year 70 (C.E.) for gladiator combats, animal slayings and executions it was fortified and held by the Visigoths after the fall of the Roman Empire. By the 700s it enclosed a fortified palace and eventually a small neighborhood was established within the amphitheater; home to around 700 people. In 1863 it was remodelled to serve as a bullring and today it is still used for this (gross) practice as well as lots of other public events. It is 130 m. by 100 m. and can seat 16,300. And it has sections still called the vomitoires. Which is obviously awesome. [These are the seats adjacent to the lower level tunnels that facilitate the exits.]

When we arrived the setting was simply breathtaking and this was before we even saw Sting (although, the hipster beard he is now sporting is less breathtaking… but he’s still totally hot. It’s the yoga, I know it.) The show was great, the crowd was entertaining, the weather was perfect. It was a lovely last night in Provence.

The next morning we woke up knowing that we would be heading out our separate ways. Nic and her sister were off to Bruges, Frenchie and I to Spain by way of Marseille. I got up early to walk around the village one last time and bid adieu to Uzès.

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On my return we were readying to go and people were packed, the house reassembled, and we were off.

Except the keys to the house were missing.

Like, totally gone.

Although there were some mild time constraints – more for us than for Nic and Sam who would be spending the night in Nimês – we basically had time. And how hard could it be to find a set of keys?

Suddenly we were looking everywhere. In packed luggage. In garbage. Under furniture. In the toilet.

No keys.

Of course, it was hard not to look to Frenchie who, without intentionally casting aspersions, I might suggest has had some struggles around losing misplacing items. Everybody was verklempt.

Still, no keys.

Until… there they were. On the kitchen table. Albeit, under the tablecloth, but they were there. It was relief incomparable to much I could think of save for having to pee so bad you think you might die and then finding a bathroom. And not dying.

So we were off. Back to Nimês to share a tearful goodbye with our friends and then to the train for Marseille. There was much to unpack – emotionally and experimentally. We had seen so much of Provence and seen how differently people see the same things. There were moments that were challenging and others delicious and still others that were transformative, and some that simply eliminated the need for words.

I suspect those are precisely the sentiments that define travel.

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Allez allez allez Versailles!

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I did not know what to expect from our sojourn to Versailles when we headed out on 13 July. I was not surprised that we left an hour or so later than planned, but unaware of any real consequences that might have. At this point I was learning that Frenchie’s adherence to schedules and attachment to timing was really something of national pastime, not really just an individual idiosyncrasy of hers.

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I was also surprised at how close Versailles is to Paris, so my being perplexed over a delayed departure seemed silly (although the “arriving-at-the-station-just-as-a-train-had-departed phenomenon was getting tired.)

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I knew that this was the hometown of my Frenchie, and as we rode out to Versailles and back in time somewhat for her, I thought a lot about what I would show this group of my hometown, were they ever to travel to the international destination that is Petaluma. It is hard to imagine really, I mean, their coming to Petaluma and the things I might choose to show them. Of course, Petaluma is not home to one of the world’s most famous palaces, so I might be forced to think a little harder. Though, truth be told, I think having the palace made it more challenging for Frenchie to really show us what her hometown was like, because we were all like, “Oh my god look at the palace!” the whole time.

Oh, and we were hungry.

No one wanted to admit it really, because no one wanted to be a pain in the ass, but we were hungry – and a hungry mob is an angry mob. Now we were arriving in Versailles to find out that a) we were too late to rent bicycles in town (which had been another of those plans I was unaware of) and b) restaurants were closing for their midday break… save for McDonald’s. Add to this, Frenchie really wanted to give us a peek into her life, one I know Nic and I really wanted to see. But things were not flowing smoothly. I knew that we were going to picnic. Tthe French, as you can imagine, have their own take on this. Frankly (see what I did right there?) it is actually a far superior take on a picnic than we have here in the states, because it is just so “whatever” (read easy). There is generally very little planning, whatever food is around is gathered up, and you eat somewhere outside. Viola! Picnic. I also knew that we would be seeing some fireworks as the Bastille Day fête would be on the eve of 14 Julliet in Versailles.

As we wandered around looking for a suitable place to eat like a heard of Goldilocks (not too fancy, not too expensive, not too closed, not too not-French, not too touristy, not too fast-food) we contemplated just picnicking – or at least I did because I was carrying quite a bit of weight on my back with our wine supply and wondering when the picnic was going to happen.

What I did not know was that what Frenchie had in mind was: get bikes in town, ride around and see her old house and haunts, get some lunch, ride around the palace grounds, sunset picnic, see Frenchie’s flat, meet our friend Fred (who was our neighbor in HK and a friend of Frenchie’s since school in Versailles), see fireworks and head back to Clamart.

What Frenchie did not know was: we would arrive too late for bikes in town and lunch, her pals would be worried about when they would eat, the palace (not the grounds) would be closed because it was a Monday, and the grounds would close, oh, right around sunset.

What we all would come to realize is, that regardless that “the best-laid plans of mice and men, often go awry,” it all works out in the end.

We wandered hungrily around town before finally settling on a ‘too touristy’ place for lunch. But it was not McDonald’s, so victory was ours. I actually really enjoyed my lunch. This could have been because I was starving (see Eddie Murphy and the saltine cracker) or it is just the reality that the worst French food is pretty damn good. I had an excellent quiche and salad, which I may or may not have mentioned is something that food-wise that the French do not understand: greens and vinaigrette is all you are going to see for salad, they simply do not understand how to use and combine vegetables without creme or cheese. Still, yum. Frenchie ordered something of a classic French meal that had random animal parts and sauce. I passed on giving it a go. She loved it. Of course. This is an enduring theme of our friendship: we are a great team for sharing because we have nearly universally opposite tastes in everything. It is really both peculiar and convent.

As a funny side note, we found a dime bag of weed under the table. It was hilarious to us for some reason, and we were quite beside ourselves with laughter, and then: wait, what should we do with it? After going through no end of what ifs, like what if it were a test or a trap, or what if we put it in our pockets or our bags and forgot about it and got stopped at the airport, or what if we just said fuck it let’s smoke it and it was laced with some hideous drug we had never heard of, we left it on the table.

We would be roundly chastised for this later.

Now with our belly’s full (a hungry mob is an angry mob) we headed through town making our way circuitously to the palace. We saw where Frenchie had lived as a child. I liked thinking of her here is this town, on that balcony. I wondered if we would have been friends back then. We walked along streets she knew so well and it reminded me of the feeling I get when I retrace steps so familiar with the fresh eyes of others: it brings up a special kind of acknowledgment of certain things that have contributed to making us “us”, I suppose that is nostalgia.

As we made our way to the palace I was getting excited. Louis XIV was a rather BAMF enlightened despot and I wanted to see the place that he had envisioned that has inspired so much petty emulation by others like Peter the Great and any number of cheap Vegas McMillionaires. I would not see the castle today as it was closed, which was a bummer on one hand because, duh: BLING. But also a bit of a relief since I would have been the only one of our group who wanted to go in and so, now there was no decision to be made.

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Regardless you get a pretty real sense of the place from the outside anyhow. I have always found the story of the Dauphine (Louis XVI) and Marie Antoinette pretty interesting and it was really cool to walk around and try to imagine what it was like for these kids to be ensconced in this place. And the gardens… wow.

We got bikes here and so that was one obstacle cleared, off we went.

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There are not really words for the afternoon we spent cycling around the grounds of the palace of Versailles except to say that it was pretty special.

DSC_7652Once back from our ride we decided we would have an hour or so on our one and then meet up to picnic. I was told to be back around 7:30, if memory serves, and so off I went camera in hand. In this time alone I really got to explore and have some time to move at my own pace. Being the timely individual that I am I was punctually headed back to our rendezvous when I saw Frenchie coming at me. This was unusual because, well, she was on time, early even. She was overly relieved to see me, so I knew something was up. What was up was that the park was closing. and we were going to have to get out.

Ha. I laughed, that would be funny being locked in the Palace of Versailles, wouldn’t it? As it would happen, Frenchie had already done that long ago when she had spent her summers working at the palace (helluva summer job, no?) and she “knew” a guy whose dad ran things or something… she was quite cheeky in her omission of details around said guy, so I am going to have to follow-up on that story at some point… And somehow they got locked in. Yeah, clearly more of a story there, no? Anyhow, at this point we made it out.

Phew. And in true hometown fashion, we got picked up by her mom to take us back to town.

On arriving back in town the elusive picnic was soon to be had. And in what turns out to be the French picnicking way, we rocked up to a sweet little bench and ate our food. Just like that. And it was, like the riding around the palace oddly, surprisingly, perfect.

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All along Frenchie had been trying to meet Fred and it was looking like that might not happen. But as we walked back towards the action in the town square, suddenly, it was not just Fred, but what seemed like our whole village. It was a moment that would frame so much of my summer… here I was, somewhere far away from anywhere I knew, and in the midst of the people who had, without thought or warning, helped to create my life abroad. To have friends that are like family in this way is a gift. To recognize it, all the better.

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And on this sparkly night in Versailles I was able to both along with my world wide tribe.

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“It’s the little differences.”

The first morning I woke up in Paris, I was up before everyone. (I was generally up before everyone always, although Nic would end up giving me a run for the money.) I sort of laid there where I was, in the upstairs bedroom in JM’s chateau in the suburbs, Clamart to be precise, and thought to myself : I CANNOT BELIEVE I AM IN PARIS.

Okay, fair play, I was just outside of Paris, but for all intents and purposes I was IN PARIS.

And it was sunny.

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This first day was supposed to be a “planning day” for Frenchie and me so we could work out our desires and priorities before meeting up with Nic and her sister the next day, but first I was going to go meet a friend who was coincidentally laid over in Paris en route to Dominica from the UAE. [Having friends for which sentences like that are apt is so awesome.] I wanted to see Rachel because she and I are friends entirely due to Stuart, and for reasons I am not interested in articulating here, we share a certain understanding of the bloke.

To see Rachel I would head out to Orly Airport so as to keep things as simple as possible for someone moving to the other side of the world with their young child. JM offered to take me there, so I would only need to self-navigate one way, which was kind. Frenchie and I arranged to meet at a fountain near the Notre Dame. How hard could that be? I mean, a fountain in Paris, right?

Yeah.

I had gleaned from the previous evening that JM enjoyed the excitement of vehicular delights, and so when he pointed to his motorcycle and I looked down at my black mini dress, I determined that all bets were off on wise choices. He handed me a helmet and I sighed with relief to know that my cranium would be safe and probably only 90% of my flesh would go missing should a mishap occur on what google maps said would be a forty minute ride.

He grinned reminding me entirely too much of Peter Fonda’s Captain America as I hopped on the bike. It would be fine, I reasoned. I mean, he has made it to 40 – and has a family. He doesn’t want to die.

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The ride to Orly was pretty easy surface streets and highways and under beautiful sunny skies. I focused a lot on the sky. It turns out JM does not like to be behind other vehicles on the road, and he sure as shit is not going to be passed by a motorcycle. A couple of times he looked back to ask if everything was okay. I hope in my efforts to be completely cool about all potential outcomes, I hadn’t inadvertently Heimlich’d him. To be fair it actually was a fun ride. I mean, I like roller coasters a lot.

When we arrived at the airport (in approximately twenty minutes) I stepped off the bike and took my hair out of the helmet while adjusting my LBD. No lie, I felt pretty glamorous. Like, here I was coming in hot (in every way) and hopping off a bike driven by a super cute guy, with no luggage and heading into the airport, as if I might be heading off on some crazy spontaneous get away. That could be an great scene in a bad romcom.

And the best thing about black is your sweat doesn’t show, which is awesome.

Although, it does show where one’s thighs were gripping the sides of a black leather seat on a motorcycle. And the strap of the helmet got a little caught up in my windswept hair, so my reverie ended rather quickly as JM sped away.

Entering the airport, I logged into the wifi – which is free everywhere in Europe, as it bloody well should be in America – to check where I would meet up with Rachel. We settled on Laudurée. Tres French. Plus, macrons; like cookies, but a little different.

The catch up was short and sweet and a wonderfully playful bit of punctuation on the Stuart Saga. we laughed a lot, and Rachel remarked how she just knew he would try to take credit for everything were he there because, yes, he was such a cheeky bastard.

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And like that we said adieu and headed on our separate ways. Another perfect rendezvous accomplished.

So now, to get back to Paris and a fountain.

I found someone who graciously directed me to the Orly bus, which would get me to the RER, which in turn would get me to central Paris. Stepping out I saw there was a bus there – fantastique! I would get on that bus and be on my way. I proceeded to the ticket machine; like those I had seen before, but a little different.

And then, I missed the bus.

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The machine now seems simple, but like so many things, it’s the little differences in Paris, and this weird quasi touch screen with a roller mechanism… just really did not present itself as an obvious option at the time. To be fair the three guys behind me were French and had no freaking clue how to make the machine work either. By the time I eventually got a ticket I would be waiting more than twenty minutes for another bus.

Merde.

But, the bus ride was easy, and I kept telling myself that Frenchie would wait for me, I mean, to my knowledge she has not been on time to anything since I have known her, and this includes her own events. I was not getting a sim card because I had my American iPhone, which of course is locked, because: America. This meant old school meet ups like we did in the 80s: make a plan and stick to it. It was refreshing.

Until you were 45 minutes late.

On arriving to Sainte Michel with ease I came out of the metro station and promptly turned the wrong way. I include the map below as a weak explanation. Emerging from the RER in the foreground left, I walked towards the intersection and made a right towards the Notre Dame because that is what everyone was doing. I surmised there would be a fountain there. And yes, there was. A multitude. But alas, no Frenchie – or not the Frenchie I was looking for.

I walked in literal circles – well trapezoids if we are really being literal – for nearly a half an hour. Paris urban planning is a little different.

And nothing.

Retracing my steps I headed back towards the RER where the Fountaine Sainte Michel practically screamed at me with its obviousness. Huh. Perhaps that fountain then? I walked toward the fountain and headed left (towards the M in the rear right of the diagram) where I saw a cafe and heard “Amanda?” in English, but a little different.

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It was Nickie, seated with her sister, and Frenchie (whose head had been down as she was trying to figure out the wifi to contact me – the figuring out of the wifi would also be a theme of this trip). I was shocked, relieved, delighted, amazed, happy, hot, and thirsty. It was a lot to take in, but I really could not believe we were all sitting here, like the three of us had so many times before, but a little different.

Frenchie and I were supposed to meet Nic the next day as she and her sister would be staying the night in Paris to rest after the flight from Oz. But Frenchie had been nearly as late as I had (!!) and so she had been worried about me as I am generally painfully punctual and she had been walking around the now so obvious to me (like the roller thing) fountain when she had randomly bumped into our Aussie companions. Incroyable!

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This happy circumstance totally shifted the day – a planning session would not happen, but phones and strolling the streets of Paris and rosé and catching up would. In what seemed like another lifetime, three women in Hong Kong had made a promise to meet in Paris five years on, and here we were. Same same, but, a little bit different.

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We finished our day a top the Tour Montparnasse as a small reminder of where we were. In case anyone had forgotten.

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I love Paris in the spring time, I love Paris in the fall…

…actually I have no idea about Paris in the spring time or the fall. But I definitely got a kick out Paris in the summer when it sizzles.

Love? Well come on, you know I may be quick to commit, but I remain, as ever, very slow to admit.

I have wanted to go to Paris for a really long time. In spite of all of the less typical places I had travelled, I had never gone to Paris. I am not sure why I never did, but regardless it loomed as a must see. In the fall of 2014 someone, in an effort to impress I suppose, told me he wanted to take me on a trip somewhere I had never been. When he realized I had not seen Paris he began to wax poetic about Paris in the springtime and told me he wanted to take me there in the spring of 2015 for a whirlwind getaway because he had to show me Paris. The clichés should have been a give away that it was a total load of shit, but it sounded exciting enough that I almost forgot that I had already made plans with people who would never ghost me to go to Paris – and the prearranged time was nigh – if we stuck to our original plan we would be in Paris in the summer. Grateful for my ghosting, I would find myself in Paris with my tribe in July.

My arrival in Paris was like a story that seems ridiculously fictitious. Alighting the train at Gare du Nord, I saw (even without my glasses!) Frenchie waving to me in the quintessential (and eventually ubiquitous) blue and white striped shirt.

C’est ici.

We had a plan to meet her brother – our eventual host – although we were not exactly sure where. Pretty sure, but you know…

We landed with ease into Cafe A a short walk from the station. In no time rosé was in hand as I sat in ecstatic disbelief that I was IN PARIS sitting here with one of my dearest friends. IN PARIS. 

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Soon enough JM was on the scene… and suddenly everything was happening in French. I mean everything. It dawned on me that I really and truly knew not a single useful phrase in French. Nothing. Nada. Never have I felt so totally linguistically impotent, it was amazing. And by I amazing I mean, “Holy shit, now what?” Although I have travelled to lots of places where English is hard to come by and signage was not even useful – Kyoto and Beijing spring immediately to mind – the thing that was not synching in my mind is that everyone in Paris looked like they could speak English. I realize that sounds at best ethnocentric, and at worst totally ignorant, but somehow my mind was not getting it that I was somewhere where people who looked like me were not going to be speaking a language I could make any sense of. And French puts a special twist on a Romance language; where I can make my way in Italian, and even Greek… I could not understand a word these people were shuzzing and zhuzhing at me.

For a minute I got totally freaked out.

But then Frenchie and JM came back to English and there was lots more wine and everything was fine again. For now.

We went from Cafe A to a restaurant that JM found on his Fooding app. It could have been the wine, but that food was freaking brilliant. [Eventually, I would learn that is was the wine as the true verdict (read French opinion) would be in and the restaurant was deemed: acceptable. More on French opinions to come.] In spite of the restaurant likely not being as good as it seemed, it did not matter. The reason it actually was so awesome was that I was sitting in the gentle evening light, having a tasty meal (and more wine), with my extended international family, as the sun went down IN PARIS. I was IN PARIS.

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Adriana: I can never decide whether Paris is more beautiful by day or by night.

Gil: No, you can’t, you couldn’t pick one. I mean I can give you a checkmate argument for each side. You know, I sometimes think, how is anyone ever gonna come up with a book, or a painting, or a symphony, or a sculpture that can compete with a great city. You can’t. Because you look around and every street, every boulevard, is its own special art form and when you think that in the cold, violent, meaningless universe that Paris exists, these lights, I mean come on, there’s nothing happening on Jupiter or Neptune, but from way out in space you can see these lights, the cafés, people drinking and singing. For all we know, Paris is the hottest spot in the universe.

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From dinner we got the first of many Autolib’ cars we would take while in Paris and JM proceeded to take us out on my first tour of Paris. It was epic. Really there are no other words for it.

I said I felt like I was in a movie. I asked the siblings if they had seen Midnight in Paris. They had. I asked if they liked it. They said it was so cliché. I said I felt like I was in that movie. We looked out at the Seine and laughed as we made our way to le Musee du Louvre.

Clichés are not always so bad.

The Arc de Triomphe, le Tour Eiffel, Musée du Louvre… it was a visceral and thrilling night: so perfect… even with a fabulous selfie fail (this too would be a recurring theme as Frenchie and I [not surprisingly] have completely different priorities around photo subjects and composition) due to an inability to come to consensus on what was the important element of the photo – us or IM Pei’s glass pyramid.

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In the end, I like to think nous sommes arrivés à un bon compromis.

If this was what Paris had to offer in the summer, then yes – I could love it.

One week in… Nine remain.

In my first week of summer break this year I have made a very intentional effort to pay attention to what I am doing, how I am spending my time and how I am feeling about it all. It has been pretty good so far. Under freakishly warm and sunny San Francisco skies, I have done yoga every day. I have gone out to fancy dinners and had take out in the park. I have read one novel and started another. I have watched a ton of soccer. And baseball. I have taken a lot of pictures of my cats. I have vacuumed. I have enjoyed some great cocktails. And cold beer. I have gone home and I have been home. I have cooked good food. I have fought a summer cold (victory uncertain at this point.) I have appreciated my urban situation more and more as I take advantage of the neighborhood and the ease of life in a place where everything is nearby, and no one really cares what you are wearing or who you are with. And I have appreciated having a traditional ‘hometown.’ I have hung with new friends and old friends and my parents and my parents friends.

I have also greatly enjoyed the feeling of being unburdened from negative people – although this bonus was relatively unplanned, it has been wonderful. No more fear about ‘doing something wrong,’ or ‘saying something wrong,’ or that the way I think or feel is “wrong.” No more suffering hideous treatment, only to then be told that it has to do with something else “this is really hard for me!”), or worse, that I somehow brought it on myself (“YOU did…”) No more having to worry about how someone will react – always so unpredictably –  and just feeling generally bad about it all. No more having to worry about needing to build/repair/maintain other people’s bridges. It is so freeing I can only imagine that this is the light of summer manifesting.

People always say to be kind – and this is not always easy, but damn, does it pay off.  I am so glad that the circumstances of my summer have allowed me (forced me?) to literally and metaphorically walk away from so many situations that I know would only have brought out the worst in me. I have been amazed at the kindness reciprocated from kindness.

So far this summer has been warm (too warm if you worry about drought, fires, and global warming) in a literal sense, though more so in a figurative way. When you stop placing yourself around people who only talk shit about everyone and everything, things look a lot better (duh.) And the positive energy – as silly as this sounds – is real and changes everything. It even gives you the strength to fight the good fight against those things pull at your fundamental sense of right and wrong.

So on the eve of the longest day of the year up here in the Northern hemisphere – everything feels light. I will spend the solstice day at the ballpark – what better place? – and watch the sun go down over San Francisco when it finally does.

And what of the remaining nine (almost) weeks of my summer break? I look forward to enjoying the light, even as it begins to diminish, from Carmel, Vegas, Hong Kong, Thailand, and this beautiful city by the Bay. I have a stack of books to read, a new camera lens, an open heart, and a true sense of freedom.

#WINNING

Summer comes again.

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It is summer again, and although summer generally denotes a seasonal change, as a teacher it has an additional sort of significance. Waking today – a Saturday much like many before (and hopefully after) feels slightly different than those recently passed because the reality is any day that I want to feel this way can for quite some time. This reality serves to temper many other feelings one might have, and so of course for me, in the summer everything seems so much more manageable, tolerable, deal-able.

This is my fourth summer since I came home. I realize some people think I place undue, even undeserving I’ve heard, emphasis on the compartmentalization of my life based on my geographical orientation, but I have come to understand that those who do not take the leap to experience expatriation will never under stand how (among other things like marriage and childbirth and divorce -I would guess without knowledge- matriculations and commencements, and of course death, to name a few) there are experiences that quite permanently become markers of Before and After.

These Befores and Afters become the chapters around which we build our stories. So I think they have inherent significance.

My story today starts with the rumination that this is the fourth summer I have commenced here in San Francisco, which I suppose is home as much as any place might be for me. And it feels familiar, but rather unusual in a sort of Alice and Wonderland kind of way. For example, the light is different (my building is being painted and so I am living behind scaffolding and shade cloth) but the rhythm of the morning remains the same.

The World Cup has begun. Another familiar pattern rearranged with the indelible imprints of four more years of life – rather like the pattern the shade cloth spreads across my floor. Four years ago I contemplated the World Cup as I prepared to leave my home of the past five-plus years on a small island in the South China Sea. And of course that made me think of #5. This week as the Cup kicked off in Brazil, things are so much the same – I am certainly thinking of him, but it is not the same.

Repatriated Summer #1 

One pill makes you larger
And one pill makes you small
And the ones that mother gives you
Don’t do anything at all
Go ask Alice, when she’s ten feet tall

To come home was a cause of some celebration and my friends – people I have counted on for decades and certainly will for more to come – allowed the landing to be a bit of a cause celebre. It was a summer of embracing complete unknowns. It was seemingly open to infinite possibility, and I was distinguished by my “fresh off the boat” status (being distinguished has a lot of gravitas in a world like ours it seems.) This was the summer that the power of a hometown and lifelong friends became clear. But I still didn’t want to be t/here. I chose to interpret the uncertainty as freedom and it worked. For a minute. It was all so easily manipulated and perceived. In moments I had a house, a job, as if it had been effortless.

But nothing really is as it appears.

Repatriated Summer #2

And if you go chasing rabbits
And you know you’re going to fall
Tell ’em a hookah smoking caterpillar
Has given you the call
To call Alice, when she was just small

The grey of the City was heavy. The cause and effect relationships in California public policy, and my personal public policy weighed heavily upon me. I still was free – in a way I’ve only recently begun to acknowledge and appreciate – but under the weight of unpleasant circumstances, perception mirrors the unpleasant. This summer I employed my freedom in the willful pursuit of terrible decisions. And then that was that. As quick as the fog rolled in – it went out and another paradigm shift occurred. A new job – swept up from the pit of despair with apparent ease straight out of a parking lot at an A’s game.

I recalled (as I have so many times) the words of one of my yoga teachers who warned of the potential unhappiness that awaits those who allow themselves to place too much stock in the capricious highs of life, as they will certainly then be ill-equipped for the inevitable lows mirroring the misplaced euphoria with equally mismatched despair…. But not really. It was summer, when all things are possible, positive and perfect. So I got another cat.

Repatriated Summer #3

When the men on the chessboard get up
And tell you where to go
And you’ve just had some kind of mushroom
And your mind is moving low
Go ask Alice, I think she’ll know

Much stayed the same. The home. The job. The cats. But suddenly the freedom shifted. No longer the open ended possibility of a summer of unknowns stretched out in front of me, but rather a summer of (seemingly) known facts. There was someone telling me where to go and how to see things that I was sure were not right.

No. You are wrong. Your feelings are wrong. You should not do the things you think you should do, he said.

The gaslight was illuminated. And I did what I was told because surely my feelings must be wrong because they did not match anyone else’s.

I was right. But it took another year to work this out. And it took another year still to realize that when people tell you the way you feel is wrong, they are the ones who are mistaken, and they are not your friends regardless of what they say.

Repatriation Summer #4

When logic and proportion have fallen sloppy dead
And the white knight is talking backwards
And the red queen’s off with her head
Remember what the door mouse said

A beginning that suggested the summer would be one of the mythical summers of antiquated literature and cliched perfection.  Settled. Work, home, patterns. All combining to allow for a hideous misappropriation of confidence in perceived reality.

Cracks became too real to ignore, and deep contemplation of what steps to take became the focus. Because the magical elixir of summer allows one to feel super heroic and powerful enough to manifest all illusions of reality and control, this summer set me on the required route to internal combustion.

All would break in the fall. Though not all would be revealed until the  subsequent summer.

And now here: Repatriation Summer #5

Feed your head,
Feed your head

The World Cup is back. Work is behind me. The same job awaits me. My village remains steadfast and supportive. The fog has rolled in. The cats get along better.

But this summer everything is different. I have broken free in amazing ways; unburdened as my mom said. Yes.

Like that first summer back in America I feel like I have the freedom to do anything I want to do -and that is inspiring. I am very clear in my heart & mind where this freedom has come from and my gratitude is immense. Suffice it to say that a debt has been paid in a way I never could have imagined and it has gone so far beyond what I thought I was owed.

This summer I am doing the things I should have been doing all along and reclaiming my true self. Thrice traveling. Sharing time with people who feed my soul in a way that cannot be explained. Practicing. Breathing. Reading. Writing. Taking photos. I can’t recall feeling happier… but it’s not that wildly euphoric kind of happiness. it is reflected in balance, and calm, and awareness. So I’ve got that going for me.

Feed your head,
Feed your head

Feed your head,
Feed your head

Feed your head,
Feed your head

Win win win win.

Mom: You looked so nice at the wedding, just perfect.
Me: Thanks. It was fun. But then I on Sunday I was having a pity party on the way home. A & I were flying to Tahiti, C & D were flying to Greece. And I was just…. going home.
Mom: You mean driving back to San Francisco from Wine Country, where you do not have to be at work until the third week of August? Yes, that is terrible.
Me:

Sometimes you need a mom check in to remember how full of win your life really is. Or, maybe you don’t, but I do. The thing is this: I work on an academic calendar and so I get the standard breaks that come with that. It is really pretty great. Until the ego gets all up in the mix (as with everything, I know…) But the thing is, the minute people find out I am on break the first question they ask is, “Where are you going?” And I love that question because I totally identify as a traveler – it is what I do. For real. And so, to be having a real, honest to goodness staycation, while totally amazing in lots of ways, seems so anticlimactic and banal and uninspired, and… almost embarrassing.

Anyhow, it is what I am doing for a whole bunch of reasons, many to do with oddly spaced social and family engagements throughout the summer. And I was totally fried at the end of last year so it seemed like recuperation would be a good thing. But still, I keep feeling the tug of far off places and the (let’s be honest) disappointment of not heeding the call of the wild (or not so wild.)

So what am I doing? Well, let’s look at today. Here is what I did: Continue reading